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Ex-Envoy To Yemen: U.S. Could Make Situation Worse

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama said today that to defeat al-Qaida, the U.S. will have to evolve and adapt.

President BARACK OBAMA: As these violent extremists pursue new havens, we intend to target al-Qaida wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen.

Barbara Bodine was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. During her posting, the USS Cole was attacked by terrorists at a Yemeni port; 17 sailors were killed.

Ambassador Bodine joins us to talk about Yemen's role in counterterrorism then and now. Ambassador Bodine, welcome to the program.

Ambassador BARBARA BODINE (Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And take us back, please, to the time right after the Cole bombing in 2000. How cooperative were Yemeni authorities?

Amb. BODINE: Yemen saw the attack on the Cole as an attack on Yemen, as well as an attack on us. And their first response was to pledge full cooperation in a joint investigation.

Now, it, I think as we all know, did not run quite as smoothly as everyone would have hoped. But some of that was a problem of communication and a problem of vastly different capabilities. We came in with a 21st century investigative capability, and we were working in a country that was too poor to have fingerprint powder. Sometimes there will be the political will, but there's not always the capacity.

BLOCK: And at the same time, later, Yemen refused to extradite Cole suspects to the United States. In 2006, there was a notorious prison break of convicted al-Qaida terrorists, including a key player in the Cole bombing. And they were assumed to have had help in their escape from the inside. Both of those seem to point in a very different direction.

Amb. BODINE: It's a very complex situation. Now, on the extradition issue, the Yemeni constitution expressly forbids the extradition of a Yemeni citizen any place. The prison break was quite spectacular. I remember...

BLOCK: In the worst way.

Amb. BODINE: In the worst way of spectacular. But we also do have to understand the context within which they are working. When it has come to going after the bad guys, I think Yemen has stepped up to the plate.

BLOCK: We hear Yemen described as the poorest Arab country. It's also, of course, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. How much support do you think there is among Yemeni people for al-Qaida?

Amb. BODINE: There is perhaps a broad support for a worldview of an Arab world without a large Western presence. But I think we have to be very careful to make a distinction between kind of a broad philosophic support and support for the tactics that al-Qaida uses. And there is very little support for the tactics.

BLOCK: Ambassador Bodine, help us understand the sort of balancing act that the Yemeni government has to engage in here; on the one hand, cooperating with the U.S. in strikes on terrorists; at the same time trying to maintain the support of tribal leaders and other figures who might be either sympathetic to al-Qaida, or at the very least, resistant to U.S. involvement in their country.

Amb. BODINE: There is a fine line between providing full support to the government efforts and taking it on ourselves. And to the extent that it looks as if we are either doing this directly or that the government is doing it - to use the basic term - as a puppet of ours, we are actually going to be delegitimizing that government rather than supporting it.

And one difference between Yemen and the others who it generally gets lumped in with: Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, this is a sovereign state and it is a legitimate government. How this is done is pretty much up to us. We can either support, or we can actually make the situation worse.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. She's now diplomat-in-residence at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Ambassador Bodine, thanks very much.

Amb. BODINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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